Support Local Journalism. Donate to Detroit Metro Times.

‘First Man’ puts the audience in the pilot’s seat 

click to enlarge Ryan Gosling in First Man.

Courtesy photo

Ryan Gosling in First Man.

We choose to go to the moon, President John F. Kennedy told us, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Director Damien Chazelle wasn't born when Kennedy spoke those words. Nevertheless, he must have taken them to heart, as he's fashioned in First Man a film that reverentially demonstrates the difficulty and personal sacrifice of space travel.

This is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), from his days as a daredevil test pilot in the early 1960s to his "one small step" onto the lunar surface in 1969. Written by Josh Singer and based on the only official biography of Armstrong, by James Hansen, First Man is intimate, unflinching, and mostly true. We may never know the exact words Armstrong and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), spoke in the hours before he boarded Apollo 11, but the film depicts the two quarreling over how to tell their kids that daddy might not return home. And like almost every other moment in the movie, it feels genuine.

But authenticity doesn't always make great entertainment, and, admittedly, First Man is a challenging aesthetic experiment, as it adopts impressionistic storytelling. Unlike many other space films, it's not always fun, but it is great art. Eschewing joyful entertainment, First Man is often depressing, dour, and deafeningly quiet, but so was Armstrong. And therein lies the challenge for Chazelle and Gosling: to showcase a man who shunned the spotlight, spoke little, and was misunderstood by most.

The death of Armstrong's 2-year-old daughter, Karen, in 1962, is central to the film. The tragedy never left the astronaut, and, at least figuratively, Karen became the third moon visitor on that July day in 1969, along with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll, House of Cards). The emphasis on Karen, plus the depiction of Armstrong staring intently, almost worshipfully, at the moon from the Earth over the course of the film, creates a sense of longing. First Man may not have the "right stuff" audiences are expecting, but if you look closely, you will see splashes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Duncan Jones' Moon.

Despite Armstrong's inscrutability, he was all business when it came to NASA. And Linus Sandgren's cinematography captures his brutally difficult, potentially deadly, and nauseatingly claustrophobic work. (Sit at the back of the theater to avoid motion sickness, as even the domestic scenes are packed with handheld shakiness and swish pans mimicking 1960s home movies.)

Gosling, channeling Mark Rylance, speaks volumes with silence. Foy is also excellent as the only audibly passionate character, though she's often reduced to a familiar "astronaut's wife" archetype. And Kyle Chandler, Ciarán Hinds, and Jason Clarke realistically illuminate the background.

The film represents a giant leap — metaphor intended — for Chazelle. A thematic and visual departure from Whiplash and La La Land, this is also his first feature that doesn't focus on an artist, and his first without music as the subject, though his stylistic sound design is masterful. Thanks to the abundance of space movies, Chazelle isn't left with many new things to say, but he does find new ways to say them.

Despite the best efforts of Faye Dunaway, Chazelle was denied his La La Land Academy Award, losing to Moonlight. So he's done his movie nemesis one better: He's given us the moon itself. And in return, the moon might just give Chazelle his Oscar.

Get our top picks for the best events in Detroit every Thursday morning. Sign up for our events newsletter.

We’re keeping you informed…
...and it’s what we love to do. From local politics and culture to national news that hits close to home, Metro Times has been keeping Detroit informed for years.

It’s never been more important to support local news sources. A free press means accountability and a well-informed public, and we want to keep our unique and independent reporting available for many, many years to come.

If quality journalism is important to you, please consider a donation to Metro Times. Every reader contribution is valuable and so appreciated, and goes directly to support our coverage of critical issues and neighborhood culture. Thank you.

Read the Digital Print Issue

March 25, 2020


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In Detroit